February 3, 2011, 11:50 AM

Google tries to crack down on ‘web spam’

The change will require some retailers to tweak their search tactics.

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Online retailers might have to tweak their search tactics in the wake of a late-January algorithm update from Google Inc. designed to reduce the amount of what the search engine calls web spam.

The changes aim to make it harder for web site operators to cheat their way into higher search results at the expense of more legitimate sites, writes Matt Cutts, a Google principal engineer, in a blog post.

“We have seen a slight uptick of spam in recent months, and while we’ve already made progress, we have new efforts underway to continue to improve our search quality,” he writes.

Web spam might include sites with little original content and irrelevant links. Web spam creators might buy up many cheap domain names and fill them with repeated phrases, including those related to porn. Web spam may also duplicate content from legitimate sites. While often web spam represents only an annoyance for consumers searching Google, it also can make it harder for searchers to find relevant information, Cutts says.

“For example, a search for prostate cancer that's full of spam instead of relevant links greatly diminishes the value of a search engine as a helpful tool,” he writes.

Web spam also can push down a legitimate site in search rankings, says a report this week from search marketing firm Greenlight. The agency welcomed the change but urged retailers to monitor their search rankings to make sure their sites are not inadvertently harmed by the Google algorithm change.

“This move will be welcome news to many Google users,” says Adam Bunn, director of search engine optimization at Greenlight. “But as ever, when Google makes  relatively big changes to its algorithm, there have been reports of ‘collateral damage’ where the change has affected sites whose owners feel Google has mistakenly identified their site as having duplicate or low-value content.”

Greenlight says that e-commerce sites whose rankings have recently been pushed lower should take snippets of text from site pages, put them in quotes and then search Google for the phrase. If the page does not rank first, or not at all, that could signal that Google deems that the site is publishing duplicate or low-value content.

“If firms have noticed any significant changes in their online rankings since this Monday which do not recover by the next few days, that would be suggestive of their not being normal or typical temporary ranking fluctuations,” says Bunn. “It is possible their site has been affected by the update. It could be as a result of someone else having the respective site’s content and Google mistakenly assuming their site is the original source.  In this case, the respective sites’ appeal options are limited, and it is often easier to change the content.”

Bunn also says that retailers should make sure their sites feature:

• A sufficient amount of original text content, supported by images, videos and other multimedia as appropriate;

• Links or citations from sites operated by others. 

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